Probing hurricanes with stable isotopes of rain and water vapor

Stanley Gedzelman, James Lawrence, John Gamache, Michael Black, Edward Hindman, Robert Black, Jason Dunion, Hugh Willoughby, Xiaoping Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Rain and water vapor were collected during flights in Hurricanes Olivia (1994), Opal (1995), Marilyn (1995), and Hortense (1995) and analyzed for their stable isotopic concentrations, or ratios, H218O:H2O and HDO:H2O. The spatial patterns and temporal changes of isotope ratios reflect details of a hurricane's structure, evolution, microphysics, and water budget. At all flight levels over the sea (850-475 hPa) the lowest isotope ratios occur in or near regions of stratiform rains between about 50 and 250 km from the eye. Isotope ratios are higher in the eyewall and were particularly high in the crescent-shaped eyewall of Hurricane Opal at a time when no rain was falling over a large area near the storm center. In Hurricane Olivia, isotope ratios decreased from 24 to 25 September after vertical and radial circulation weakened. A two-layer isotope model of a radially symmetric hurricane simulates these features. The low isotope ratios are caused by fractionation in extensive, thick, precipitating clouds with predominantly convergent low-level flow accompanied by removal of heavy isotopes by falling raindrops. Evaporation and isotope equilibration of sea spray increase isotope ratios of the ambient vapor and produce a deuterium excess or enrichment of D relative to 18O that increases with decreasing relative humidity and increasing wind speed. Model results show that sea spray supplies the eyewall with up to 50% of its water vapor and is largely responsible for its high isotope ratios.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1112-1127
Number of pages16
JournalMonthly Weather Review
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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